Southern Resident Orcas

The three Southern Resident orca pods, known as J, K, and L pods, historically traveled, foraged, and socialized throughout the inland waters of the Salish Sea from late spring through late summer feeding on Chinook salmon. As Chinook salmon numbers have dwindled, changes in pod structure, pod movement, and seasonal usage of the Salish Sea have become increasingly apparent over the last 5-10 years.

A uniquely distinct community of orcas, Southern Residents are unlike the other orca communities found in the Salish Sea, Northern British Columbia, and Alaskan waters. Obligate fish eaters and salmon specialists, Southern Residents do not eat marine mammals or other whales. They communicate using their own exclusive dialect, typically travel in large, extended family groups led by grandmother and mother orcas, and stay in these extended family groups their entire lives. 

Each individual can be identified by its saddle patch, the light gray marking found just behind the dorsal fin that straddles the orca’s back--no two are exactly alike, nor are they exactly symmetrical. Dorsal fin shape and size, along with other markings, like the shape and size of their white eye patches, missing notches along their dorsal fins, and scars, can aid in individual identification. These markings can be assessed by sight or using photographs. Using photo-identification methods, each orca has been identified by the Center for Whale Research with a specific alphanumeric designation that indicates their birth order in each pod, such as J22, K44, or L121, and the movements and behavior of each member and group can be studied over many decades. Each individual is also given a nickname  by The Whale Museum, such as “Oreo”, “Ripple” or “Windsong.”

Social Structure and Behavior

The Southern Resident community is an extended family, or clan, that is distinct and separate from all other orca populations. When Southern Resident pods join together after a separation of a few days or a few months, they often engage in “greeting ceremonies” — ritualized formations of each pod face one another for several minutes, then gradually merge into active groups, each existing of members of different pods, accompanied by intense underwater vocalizations and spectacular “play” and social behavior.

background spyhop photo © Monika Wieland Shields